Technology enhanced our capability to manage the ongoing pandemic, but this advantage comes with a fair share of scrutiny and criticism.
In their efforts to combat the global coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), different countries have used a variety of technological methods to cut off chains of infection by monitoring the population. This technology enables us to track the routes of infected patients, making it possible to alert those who were near the patients, as well as identifying gatherings, and individuals violating isolation.
With that being said, the assimilation of the technology among the public raises controversies regarding the violation of privacy and data reliability — for example, the accuracy of the Global Positioning System (GPS).
The approach in Europe and in the US involves voluntary, anonymous, and partially or fully sponsored applications. In Asia, however, technology plays a broad and central role in dealing with the outbreak of the virus.
Common technologies for detecting chains of infection
1— Applications having the capability to locate contacts between patients and people around them, identifying potential infections and alerting the users. These applications are characterized by a wide range of approaches, from anonymous applications to applications that involve full sharing of personal data.
- In Austria, an anonymous app developed by the Red Cross has been distributed, which includes sharing information about patients and updating those staying near them via Bluetooth. The information does not pass to the authorities.
- In France, a contact recognition voluntary app developed by the government.
In Germany, an anonymous app was distributed, without sharing personal details, that distributes messages to those who are near a patient for more than 15 minutes.
- In the United States, a voluntary app has been released to identify contact with patients, but citizens were worried about privacy to be violated.
- In some areas of India, residents, government employees, and the public sector employees have been required to download an infection monitoring app.
- In Taiwan, isolated residents were tracked through an app.
2— QR codes are scanned at the entrance of indoor spaces (businesses, offices, institutions), which constitutes a low violation of privacy.
- In Israel, the IDF soldiers must scan their personal card when entering army bases and indoor spaces.
- In Singapore, businesses and offices complexes are required to have a QR code scanning spot at the entrance.
- In South Korea, QR code scanning spots are required at the entrance to entertainment venues.
3— Technology to assist in epidemiological investigations, using the location history of smart devices.
- In the Czech Republic, a locating app was distributed to assist in epidemiological investigations to locate those staying nearby.
4— Use of artificial intelligence and smart accessories.
- In Hong Kong, those entering the country were required to wear a locating bracelet.
- In Taiwan, an artificial intelligence mechanism able to locate people with high risk for infection and transmission was developed.
5— Use of data from communication providers to locate violations of lockdowns and guidelines.
- In Austria, the government receives information from a communications company on population concentrations in various areas. Locating lockdown violations was possible with the help of a database originally intended for locating traffic jams.
- In the Czech Republic, “smart isolation” was introduced. Reporting from communications providers and banks helped monitor abnormal movements of isolated residents or patients.
6— Use of traffic data from media outlets, banks and health funds (not common in democracies due to constitutional difficulties).
- In South Korea, data from security cameras and credit card companies was used.
- In Taiwan, residents were tracked with the help of the HMO card used for travel, accommodation, and purchases.
Criticism and public discourse around privacy and technology in the world
The use of technological methods to monitor the population as part of dealing with the outbreak of Covid-19 has provoked much controversy and criticism around the world. Many countries have dedicated legislation for dealing with pandemics, which includes the ways in which information is collected during the pandemic.
- The EU seeks to protect the rights of the individual and not publish personal data about patients. France advocates a stricter position on privacy violations, while in Belgium it is forbidden for employers to collect medical information and check the temperature of employees.
- Ireland and the UK advocate a more lenient approach to information gathering. European policy requires consent in the context of application tracking.
Extensive digital surveillance exists only in Asian countries, and the approach often leads to violation of privacy of citizens.
- Taiwan and South Korea, which initially took an abusive approach to civilian privacy, have worked to change attitudes in the spirit of the EU following the criticisms.
- China is the country with the most extreme approach in this field, and it monitors its citizens routinely and in emergencies.
Israel is the only country in which secret organizations have taken part in monitoring citizens.
The significant criticisms that arise from these practices are considered on the morrow of a pandemic, with proper oversight of the information gathered, and the public trust achieved by the governments. During the outbreak of the virus, it is human behavior that determines the nature of the outbreak and the level of infection — And if there is lack of trust in leaders, the public will have difficulty complying with the guidelines ordered.
- Privacy in a Global Pandemic: Analysis of COVID-19 Guidance by Data Protection Authorities, Romain Perray and Mark E. Schreiber, 23.03.2020.
- “Monitoring Citizens – What’s Happening in the World?”, The Israel Democracy Institute, 25.03.2020.
- Surveillance of the Population: The Day after Corona, The Israel Democracy Institute, Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, 20.03.2020
- Use of technological means for locating contacts between patients and for monitoring the population around the world – Concentration of periodic information, Corona National Information and Knowledge Center, 23.06.2020.